Tanzania’s accident awake-up call


[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240"] Denis Birungi[/caption]

Tanzania and the entire East African region is mourning the enormous loss of human lives when a ferry on Lake Victoria capsized killing most of those on board.  MV Nyerere was carrying 400 people, 300 more in excess of its capacity of 100 people at the time of the accident.

Preliminary reports indicate that the accident was caused by overloading the ferry beyond its capacity. This is what happens every day in Uganda, whether on water or road transport.

A year ago, I made a trip to Kalangala aboard MV Kalangala. On my return journey aboard the same ferry, I was terrified by the extent to which the ferry was overloaded. It was packed several times beyond its capacity. There was no space to sit and passengers were standing, packed like beans.

On the cargo section, there were several trucks loaded with fish. I was informed that it is usual for the ferry to be overloaded on Mondays, given that people are returning from a weekend and that there is no other alternative except the public ferry that connects through Masaka, whose situation is even worse.

We spent the entire three hour journey on the lake with our hearts in our mouths. The ferry was unstable and turbulent. Its pipes were submerged as it struggled to navigate the waters in the morning hours with strong waves on Lake Victoria.

When I looked around, I could see only one life jacket hidden under a seat in the first-class section of the ferry. Yes, there were no life jackets on that ferry!

What was rather surprising was that the ticket I was given was from the Ministry of Transport. On board, there were police officers but none of them was bothered as the ferry was being overloaded putting the lives of those on board at risk!

A friend who had previously travelled on the same ferry had warned me. Her experience was rather scary. For her case, the ferry had been overloaded and had to cut short the journey and return to Kalangala after it became apparent that it could not make it to Entebbe.

As we mourn the loss of our Tanzanian brothers and sisters, it is time to rethink safety on our own transport systems.

There is need to develop a diverse, robust and well-regulated water transport on our various water bodies. It is not only ideal for the economy but it also ensures safety. MV Kalangala overloads because of its monopoly. The available alternatives are simple wooden boats which are not safe.

Diversifying water transport may be achieved through creating an enabling environment for private players to embrace the business and through public private partnerships (PPPs).

We need to look at the safety of our transport with a broader view. There are tourists who, despite the congestion on the only MV Kalangala, risk and go to Kalanga to explore the amazing natural beauty that God blessed this country with.

A poor and unsafe transport system discourages tourists, both local and international. It gives the country a bad name. News of fatal accidents can fly across the globe and harm the tourism industry.

The Government has a duty to, and should not only regulate but also enforce the laws to ensure human safety.

Not long ago, it was a requirement that all passenger service vehicles (PSVs) have seat belts and speed governors. All boda boda riders were required to have two helmets-one for the driver and another for the passenger. None of these requirements were enforced beyond two weeks of their declaration. Meanwhile accidents continue costing the country enormous human and other resources.

Laws cannot be enforced without a serious fight on corruption. In most cases, a driver will bribe off a traffic officer. The breach of traffic rules continue because one can buy his or her way out. At 5,000/-a hungry  and underpaid police officer is more than willing to let a crowded vehicle pass, sending those on board to harm’s way.

Unless there is a determination for a concerted effort to bring safety to our transport system, incidents like the ferry accident in Tanzania will unfortunately continue.

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